Pope: Protestants Cannot Have Churches

Joe Ratzinger continues to move the Roman Catholic Church away from the liberal ways of his predecessor.

Protestant churches yesterday reacted with dismay to a new declaration approved by Pope Benedict XVI insisting they were mere “ecclesial communities” and their ministers effectively phonies with no right to give communion.

Coming just four days after the reinstatement of the Latin mass, yesterday’s document left no doubt about the Pope’s eagerness to back traditional Roman Catholic practices and attitudes, even at the expense of causing offence.

The view that Protestants cannot have churches was first set out by Pope Benedict seven years ago when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he headed the Vatican “ministry” for doctrine. A commentary attached to the latest text acknowledged that his 2000 document, Dominus Iesus, had caused “no little distress”.

But it added: “It is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of ‘Church’ could possibly be attributed to [Protestant communities], given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements considered essential to the Catholic Church.”

The Pope’s old department, which issued the document, said its aim was to correct “erroneous or ambiguous” interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965. Quoting a text approved by the Council, it said Protestant churches, “because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood”, had not “preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery”.

Now, that’s Old School. Given the high degree of intermarriage between Protestants and Catholics, this would seem to have some interesting implications for a great number of American Catholics. Then again, it would seem that Ratzinger has decided to write off the United States and simply concentrate on building up the church in the Third World. Moving to pre-Vatican II theology surely isn’t the way to bring wayward Catholics who think the church too doctrinaire and out of step with the modern world back into the fold.

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that Benedict is actually more focussed on Europe than on either America or the Third World. Whether his “scourge” approach will be successful only time will tell. I have my doubts.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I really wish that the Guardian had cited the actual declaration so I could see what the hubbub was about.

    That the Catholic Church does not recognize the orders of every Christian denomination as valid is not new; it’s always been that way. If I remember my own theo training correctly, Orthodox orders are recognized, Anglican orders are disputed, and the orders of most other Protestant denominations are rejected.

  3. legion says:

    I can’t find the link right now, but yeah – that’s basically what he said in this document, which is also pretty much the same thing he said in a 2000 doc back when he was in his old job working church doctrine. In fact, nobody I’ve seen comment on this can really seem to explain _why_ he chose to reiterate those points right now, with no real further elaboration. All I can think of is that he’s trying to sharpen the distinctions between Catholics and Everbody Else for some reason…

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    Speaking as a Lutheran, we’ve heard this before and handled it before.

  5. Don says:

    Actually it isn’t Pre-Vatican II theology. Both Vatican II documents UNITATIS REDINTEGRATIO (DECREE ON ECUMENISM) 3 and Lumen gentium, 8 stated the same thing. I attached a link if you’re interested.


  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Yes, that was my point, Don. Thank you.

  7. The Catholic Church thinks it’s the one true church. This is news? As a member of the conservative Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod I think they’re wrong.

    Ministers of different branches of Christianity shouldn’t be offering communion in other churches anyway. Contained within the word “communion” is “common.” The practice is a display of a common theological belief. It’s a show of unity for those who take part. The theological differences between Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, etc. make such an act extremely difficult.

    This will really bug those who have loved the recent spirit of ecumenicalism (in place of tolerance), but those of us who see difference in doctrine as important should be pleased the Pope is taking a harder line.

    As for how this effects American Catholics I think they’re amazingly egocentric in wanting the Vatican to bend over to them even though they make up a small portion of the worldwide Catholic Church.

  8. Neo says:

    I find then misunderstanding of the Pope’s remarks amazing (and amusing).

    The Pope is making a distinction between ‘Church’ and ‘Protestant communities’.

    While many Protestant’s believe they belong to a “denomination’, the Catholic ‘Church’ does view itself as a collection of the “like-minded”.

    Ok, and I especially like those who think the Pope is saying that they can’t have churches, the buildings. LOL .. get a grip.

  9. floyd says:

    As a non-catholic Christian, I applaud the catholic’s taking this position.
    The catholic church should remain conservative and uncompromising in it’s doctrine. If you reject catholic doctrine, then your not catholic.
    There are non-Christian Catholics, Methodists, Baptists etc. All denominational members in good standing.
    However,The “Church” is in truth “the body of Christ” composed of those who know and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
    It is certainly not the Pope,as venerable as he is,who will be the final judge of this affiliation.

  10. donald tremblay says:

    This is the same Roman C. arrogance. He should
    read the new RC Catechism,the chapters on the
    church. Where is Pope John 23rd? i’m not a catholic any longer for just these reasons.
    Is what these Popes say up for grabs.
    Im sure whenever all of us come before GOD
    he’s not going to ask us what church we attended.
    He will however,ask you give bread when i was
    hungry? Did you help your neighbor in trouble?
    Did you tolerate others? Did you love the sinner
    but not the sin?
    Did you look down on others because they didn’t
    think the way you do?
    This is what’s inportent.
    God help is>

  11. legion says:

    It’s funny; I always thought acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior was the defining aspect of Christianity & the main requirement for salvation. Apparently, one also has to believe in the Pope to be saved also. I don’t recall Jesus saying anything about that in the Bible…

  12. Apparently, one also has to believe in the Pope to be saved also. I don’t recall Jesus saying anything about that in the Bible…

    Thus a reason for the Reformation.

  13. G.A.Phillips says:


    you are right,and If you study the papacy vs. the teachings of the Bible the Blasphemy is quiet obvious, And I am not trying to say that there are not millions catholics who love and seek to worship GOD.

    How dose a man clam to be Christ on earth? how do men claim to have the power to forgive sins?

    There are many more examples, But I would say it is as easy as you have done, compare the doctrine of the Catholic Church to the teachings of Christ in the Bible so that you might see for your self.

  14. Bithead says:

    Of course the Pope is going to say that the Roman Catholic church is the only Church. For one thing, look up the meaning of the word “catholic”.

  15. Paul Barnes says:

    What I find remarkable is the ignorance displayed by many, many people. On a lot of things.

    First off, most people are ignorant of the structure of the Vatican. (See John Allen’s All the Pope’s Men) This document was written by one of the more important offices, CDF, but it does not necessarily reflect the whole of the Pope’s thoughts on the matter.

    Secondly, throwing in the complaint that the Catholic Church should “just accept the Bible” when it rejects the foundations of Protestant doctrine is nonsense. Get over it, the Catholic Church does not accept those premises.

    Finally, the distinctions between churches are nothing new and what the Catholic Church teaches about other Christian sects is complicated. Simplistically, its because Protestant churches do not have valid priestly orders (or however they are classified). They do not have the Eucharist.